KENNESAW — Johnson had quality moments against top-ranked Dalton in an attempt to dethrone Class AAAA's kings of soccer.
In the end, the Catamounts were as good as advertised.
Justen Macias and Javier Rodriguez each scored for top-ranked Dalton, and the Knights' bid for their first state championship fell short in a 2-0 loss to the Catamounts in the Class AAAA finals Saturday at Kennesaw State University.
Johnson (21-2) fared better than Dalton's previous playoff opponents this season, but still couldn't prevent the Catamounts (22-0-1) from winning their second straight state title.
"They didn't let us build too much," Knights coach Brian Shirley said. "They were at 50-50 balls from the beginning. The amount of pressure they put us under definitely gave us issues."
Nevertheless, Johnson's players have very little to hang their heads about.
The historically successful Hall County program set a team record for wins in a season, and reached the state finals for the first time.
"The whole school is proud of these guys," Shirley said. "It'll sink in the next couple of days, exactly what they were able to do. They'll definitely be proud of this accomplishment."
For Dalton, the soccer dynasty at the northwest Georgia school is at full strength.
The Catamounts haven't lost in their last 45 outings, winning both state titles during the span. They were responsible for Johnson's last two playoff losses.
Make that three.
"It's just the boys putting hard work into it, and believing in the way we want to play soccer," Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said.
"(Johnson's) speed was very good. I think later that the game got, we were able to wear that down by subbing, but their speed was what was giving us a hard time."
The Knights spent the majority of the game without captain Luis Deltoro, who left midway through the first half after falling while chasing down a loose ball in the attacking zone.
With the senior forward sidelined, the Knights' offense was diminished, and held scoreless for just the second time this season.
"That hurt," Shirley said. "You lose your captain, the cog of your machine, and that threw off a little bit. Kind of put the spirit down, for sure."
Johnson gave Dalton a wake-up call just five minutes off the opening whistle with Barut Perez's header off a cross from Fabian Abarca. The shot required Catamounts goalkeeper Leuri Fraire to leap for the save, but he averted an early Knights goal.
"We finish that, that goal goes in, it's a different game right there," Shirley said. "I think it goes back to that a little bit."
Dalton got comfortable after that.
The Catamounts sprayed several shots on Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido throughout the rest of the first half, keeping the junior busy making saves with traffic in front of him.
Dalton had a goal disallowed in the 21st minute on an offsides call, but Macias made up for it 16 minutes later.
He was in perfect position in front for a feed from Cristian Saldana – who salvaged a cross from Rodriguez – and headed the ball past Salcido for the 1-0 Dalton lead.
"We mishit the clearance," Shirley said. "Nobody stepped in and got it."
Johnson couldn't answer the goal in the first half, but wasn't without opportunities.
In the 32nd minute, Abarca beat a pair of Dalton defenders for an open look at the net, but was denied twice by Fraire.
"It was huge to take a goal into halftime, and it was huge not to get scored on," Cheaves said. "They had a header on a cross that my keeper got to, so it was huge for us not to get scored on early."
The Knights continued to struggle against the Catamounts' tenacious offense early in the second half, resulting in a goal by Rodriguez in the 48th minute.
Salcido was drawn away from the net, and Dalton's Churrui Huitanda had just enough room to find Rodriguez, who tapped the ball into the open net for the 2-0 lead.
With the Catamounts up by two, there was little Johnson could do to recover.
"It was hard to get anything built on the front end with that attack," Shirley said. "We shifted around a little more with an attacking lineup in the second half. We generated some shots, but just couldn't get anything to fall."
Johnson loses 11 seniors from this year's team, but Shirley doesn't expect any regression in success in 2015.
In fact, he expects to see the Knights make another run for a state championship, perhaps even bring home the program's first title.
"The bar is set up there now," Shirley said. "We expect to go and get after it. We have a good middle school feeder program – some good guys coming in. We have some guys on the JV squad we'll be looking to step up and fill some roles."